Leading article: How local initiatives can change the world

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The Independent Online

The looming local elections have taken on a welcome green tinge. David Cameron launched his party's campaign this week with a pledge that Conservative councillors will encourage recycling and implement greener local transport policies. Yesterday, to coincide with the local elections, an alliance of environmental groups unveiled a "sustainable energy manifesto". The programme, which has been endorsed by the Conservatives, calls on the Government to reduce the demand for energy and to do more to boost renewable power. It also calls for a public education programme to change the culture of energy use.

All this serves to confirm that, when it comes to the environment, local politics matters. It is not just in Britain where this is the case. Despite Washington's intransigence on climate change, 218 US cities have signed up to a 12-step programme to meet targets set by the Kyoto protocol. Vulnerable coral reefs in the Philippines and Fuji have been protected by local action to limit land-based developments, which threaten coastal waters with sedimentation. Pollution and environmental despoliation are causing rural unrest in China. Even if there is scant evidence so far that it is having an effect on the authorities in Beijing, the day when even the emerging power in the East must listen to its citizens cannot be put off forever.

This is the paradox of democratic politics. It is extremely difficult to get environmental protection laws through on a national level - where the results would be dramatic - because the voting public is often doubtful of the ability of the authorities to make a difference. But it is much easier at a local level - where the impact of any measures is more incremental - because people perceive they can have a direct affect on the problem.

There are plenty of good intentions on show on the national political stage. The Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown, will make a speech in New York today calling for rich nations to channel $20bn per year to help developing nations produce cleaner energy. Mr Cameron is visiting Norway, where he will witness the alarming effect of climate change first hand. The Tories are also conducting a review of their energy policy, amid signs that their longstanding support for nuclear power may be on the wane. This is to be encouraged, especially when the Government seems to have made up its mind to proceed with a new generation of nuclear power stations. The Liberal Democrats have the most impressive green credentials of the three main parties, but this record has been sullied of late by some pathetic agonising by their new leader, Sir Menzies Campbell, over whether to sell his gas-guzzling Jaguar. In recent months the Liberal Democrats have been far too quiet in general on the environmental agenda. They are in serious danger of losing ground to both Labour and the Tories.

The entire political system continues to move painfully slowly. Sir David King, the Government's chief scientific adviser, has made the bleak prognosis that a devastatingglobal temperature rise of three degrees Centigrade in the next 100 years is inevitable. We found out this week that the US, the world's biggest polluter, emitted more greenhouse gasses in 2004 than at any time in history.

The effects of climate change are already beginning to bite. Drought in east Africa is a result of rising water temperatures in the Indian Ocean. A powerful hurricane season in the Gulf of Mexico is in store, due to abnormally high sea temperatures in the Atlantic. Urgent change needs to come from somewhere. In the words of Greg Nickels, the Mayor of Seattle:"If it's not going to happen from the top down, let's make it happen from the bottom up." Let our town councils and local politicians adopt a similarly proactive attitude.